Praetextatus – Religion … Pagan Topography (Ch. 2.4)


Maijastina Kahlos, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus – Senatorial Life in Between. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae no. 26, Roma 2002.


The restoration of the Porticus deorum consentium

As a city prefect, Praetextatus is known to have restored and dedicated anew the Porticus deorum consentium in the Forum Romanum. CIL VI 102 records this restoration, stating that he restored the sacred statues, sacrosancta simulacra of the di consentes and their cult in its old form.[1] The restoration was probably restricted to the relocation of the statues of the Twelve Gods and to some restorations of the damaged parts of the portico. The Porticus deorum consentium, standing below the cliff of the Capitoline Hill in the Forum Romanum, had been originally built in the second or third century B.C.E. but its present form dates from the Flavian period. In the first century B.C.E. Varro records the existence of gilded statues of the Twelve Gods in the Forum Romanum. These statues of the di consentes probably stood between the columns of the colonnade of the portico.[2]

The di consentes, ‘divine councillors’ or the Twelve Olympians had a special fundamental role in Roman state life since the senatorial order projected its own functions and its own dignity on a metaphysical level. The idea of the Twelve Gods as a heavenly projection of the senatorial class is clear in Martianus Capella’s words, ac mox Iovis scriba praecipitur pro suo ordine ac ratis modis caelicolas advocare, praecipueque senatores deorum.[3] The consensus, the unanimity of the senatorial class, could also have been emphasized.

In addition to a political interest, there may also have been a syncretistic tendency to interpret the deities. It is possible, as Bloch proposed, that the portico of the di consentes was important for Praetextatus because he saw a manifestation of the supreme universal divinity, numen multiplex, in the traditional Twelve Gods.[4] The Twelve Gods appear in the Neoplatonic literature of the fourth and fifth centuries; for instance, in Sallustius’ treatise concerning the gods and the universe they govern the twelve spheres of the cosmos and are protectors of the planets.[5] Moreover, they are depicted as tutelae of the months and the zodiac in Macrobius’ Saturnalia where the writer in Praetextatus’ imaginary discourse refers to Mars and Venus as the tutelae of March and April.[6]

The Roman di consentes were protectors of the city of Rome and celebrations of the lectisternium in honour of the di consentes had been organized for centuries in order to protect the city. Therefore, their cult, with its emphasis on civic responsibility and well-being, had been vital for the Romans. Restoring the Porticus deorum consentium and maintaining the ancient cult of the Twelve Gods was neither mere antiquarianism nor nostalgia but rather, in the eyes of the Roman pagan aristocracy, the restoration of the portico must have seemed essential to the welfare of the city. It was an important practical measure designed to keep the tutelary deities of Rome favourable under threat of barbarian invasions. Augustine, for example, writes that some pagans even blamed the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410 on the Christians for their neglect of the old gods.[7]

The Porticus deorum consentium is the last known pagan monument erected or restored officially by a Roman magistrate but Praetextatus was not the only individual who restored pagan shrines. Other restorations connected with the pagan cults were carried out by the city prefect or other high magistrates of Rome, e.g. the temple of Apollo Sosianus by Memmius Vitrasius Orfitus (PVR 357-359) and the Porticus Boni Eventus by Claudius Hermogenianus Caesarius (PVR 374-375).[8] It was important to hold high offices in order to control the financing of building and restoration projects in Rome. A city prefect, for instance, was able to use his position to promote his political or religious interests in constructing buildings.

Nevertheless, it is not necessary to interpret the restoration of the Porticus deorum consentium only as a special expression of paganism. The urban prefect, who was in charge of all public construction and maintenance in Rome, was also responsible for the restoration of pagan as well as Christian public buildings, e.g. the pagan city prefects Sallustius and Symmachus were responsible for the construction of a Christian church (nowadays S. Paolo fuori le mure) in 383-385.[9] The simple distinction between pagans and Christians is not very useful here; sacred buildings were not necessarily always restored because they were pagan or Christian but because they were public buildings.

In the late fourth century there was a significant shift in defining public buildings since before Gratian’s reign public buildings that were under official surveillance usually were pagan temples but during his reign the authorities began also to regard Christian churches as public buildings.[10] As the imperial government interrupted the public finance system for pagan cults in 382, wealthy pagan aristocrats had to take all responsibility for the upkeep of their religious centres without the benefit of state subsidies. At the end of the fourth century Christian building activity did not yet hold a monopoly in Rome for many pagan monuments and public buildings were still restored, remodelled, rebuilt or redecorated and pagans continued to dedicate altars and cult statues. The Forum Romanum in particular seems to have remained a pagan reserve as e.g. the temple of Vesta (in 394) and the temple of Saturn (around 400) were restored. Nevertheless, most of the building activity of the time was restoration work.[11] Both pagan and Christian aristocrats sponsored construction and restoration of shrines in Rome because the private patronage of religious building was part of the aristocratic code of life of pagan and Christian senators alike.


The Maeniana

Pagan sacred buildings were closed and their revenues confiscated by the imperial government but at the same time imperial legislation obliged the authorities to protect the temples as public monuments and as fiscal property. Thus, temples were seen not only as pagan shrines but also as civic ornaments and monuments of the past and as imperial property.[12] In imperial legislation, Rome in particular was protected from new construction and the Roman civic administration was charged to restore and maintain public buildings.[13]

However, the imperial government, especially under Emperor Gratian, was neither efficient nor interested in protecting pagan monuments in Rome and did not do much to prevent Christian magistrates from destroying pagan shrines, e.g. in the case of Furius Maecius Gracchus who during his urban prefecture in 376-377 demolished a shrine of Mithras.[14] Vettius Probianus became city prefect after Gracchus and, perhaps following the orders of his superiors, removed several statues from temples to the basilicas in the Forum Romanum.[15] Temples suffered from private spoliation as decorations of temples were taken away and parts of temples were used for private constructions even though e.g. Augustine condemned the private use of pagan objects belonging to pagan monuments because, as he pointed out, Christians ought not to take anything for private use, to make it clear that they were destroying from piety, not from greed.[16]

When Praetextatus held the city prefecture in 367, he took measures to protect public buildings and particularly pagan shrines. He had all the so-called Maeniana removed and also tore down the walls of private houses which had been illegally joined to sacred buildings, namque et Maeniana sustulit omnia fabricari Romae priscis quoque vetita legibus et discrevit ab aedibus sacris privatorum parietes isdem inverecunde conexos.[17] The word maeniana referred to extra structures like balconies, colonnades, upper galleries or second storeys added privately to public buildings. These Maeniana had originally been built to view the games in the Forum Romanum though, according to Ammianus, this kind of building had been forbidden since earlier times in Rome. Such extra structures were also prohibited in late antiquity, often because of the risk of fire or because the width of the streets were narrowed or because public buildings had deteriorated. It is possible that Praetextatus did not intent to demolish all extra accretions on Roman buildings but to clean up the Forum Romanum area in order to keep pagan buildings visible in the civic landscape.[18]
Protection of pagan buildings

The deterioration of pagan sacred buildings and areas was only gradual but the plundering and the destruction of pagan shrines by private persons continued undisturbed. In 384 it was possible for Praetextatus as praetorian prefect to try to put a stop to the spoliation of sacred buildings when he obtained from Emperor Valentinian II an imperial order empowering the city prefect Symmachus to investigate and to bring plunderers of public buildings, i.e. of pagan shrines, to justice. Praetextatus’ and Symmachus’ actions were obviously intended to prevent Christian spoliation of pagan shrines and to restore ornaments removed from public places for private use.[19] The text of the sacrum edictum that Praetextatus obtained is unknown but the words ubi primum senatus … subiecta legibus vitia cognovit in Symmachus’ relatio 3.1 might refer to the decree achieved by Praetextatus. D. Vera believes that Symmachus’ letter to Praetextatus (epist. 1.46), where he mentions an edictum principum, could also allude to this imperial decree; thus, the words statuas recepistis could refer to the statues returned to pagan shrines.[20]

It was rumoured at the court in Milan that Symmachus was using the inquiry to maltreat Christians and that he had imprisoned and tortured Christian priests. In a public letter Valentinian II reprimanded him and ordered that all whom he had imprisoned should be released but Symmachus defended himself by stating that he had been authorized by Praetextatus who obtained the decree from the emperor himself. Besides, Symmachus had not even started the inquiry and Damasus, the Bishop of Rome, testified that no harm had been done to Christians. Symmachus’ defence was well-founded since he had the urban officium and Damasus as his witnesses. Damasus was indebted to Praetextatus for his support as city prefect during the rivalry for the bishopric of Rome between Damasus and Urbanus in 367.[21]

The attack against Symmachus was probably targeted against Praetextatus and the imperial letter to Symmachus could have connected Praetextatus’ name with the accusations. Praetextatus’ restoration policy as a praefectus urbi and as a praefectus praetorio may have annoyed some people within the Christian circles at the court of Milan. In fact, Symmachus alludes to someone very near the emperor who had accused Symmachus of torturing Christians and who could have been a Christian magistrate in the imperial palace because he had the access to the emperor. It seems that Praetextatus and Symmachus were cautious enough not to begin their ‘campaign’ immediately but Praetextatus perhaps first waited for Symmachus’ appointment and Symmachus did not start the investigation at once.[22]


Praetextatus’ ascent to the Capitol

Pagan restorations in Rome, Ostia and Portus were not only a result of religious obligation or propaganda but also a result of the special pagan concepts of urban topography. These concepts were in contrast to the Christian ideas of topography, for pagan ceremonies and cult activities were located inside the walls of Rome while those of Christians were situated outside the walls. In 403 Jerome wrote, probably exaggerating, how the city of Rome was shaken to its foundations as Christians rushed outside the walls to visit the martyrs’ graves and the gilded Capitol and all the temples of Rome were neglected, deserted and half-ruined.[23]

The Capitoline hill was the centre of the Roman state cult as the temple of Iuppiter Optimus Maximus was situated there. In a letter to Marcella, Jerome condemns the recently deceased Praetextatus who had ascended to the Capitol just a few days before his death as if he had been celebrating a triumph: Ille, quem ante paucos dies dignitatum omnium culmina praecedebant, qui quasi de subiectis hostibus triumpharet Capitolinas ascendit arces, quem plausu quodam et tripudio populus Romanus excepit.[24] Praetextatus’ ascent to the Capitol, applauded and hailed by the Roman people, was an official procession because it was evidently organized by authorities of the city; according to Jerome, Praetextatus was preceded by the highest magistrates of the city, dignitatum omnium culmina praecedebant which could be an allusion to Symmachus, the city prefect at that time.

Jerome’s account of Praetextatus’ solemn ascent to the Capitol illustrates the significance of the Capitol in the ideological contest between pagans and Christians. Jerome could have realized that though Praetextatus’ ascent to the Capitol was not a real triumph, some people could still have connected these celebrations to the tradition of triumph; it seems to me likely that the spectaculum triumphale organized by Praetextatus and Symmachus was inspired by the pagan ceremony of triumph.[25] Though many of its sacral connotations were probably forgotten by the Late Empire, a triumph was fundamentally a special homage to Iuppiter Optimus Maximus for whom the triumphator was temporarily proxy during the triumph. The celebration of a triumph ended on the Capitol where a triumphator deposited his laurel wreath into the lap of the statue of Juppiter, in gremio Capitolini Iovis.[26] Christian emperors had abandoned the traditional triumphus that had culminated in a solemn sacrifice to Iuppiter Capitolinus. Emperor Constantine had probably refused to make a sacrifice on the Capitol, which must have offended traditionalist circles in Rome, and after him no Christian emperor wanted to end his triumph in Rome with the traditional procession to the Capitol and with the sacrifice to the Capitoline Juppiter.[27]

When Praetextatus made his solemn ‘triumphal’ appearance before the Roman people, he and Symmachus occupied the highest offices, Praetextatus as praetorian prefect and Symmachus as city prefect. There had been discussion about whether the imperial government should continue supporting the Roman state religion and Praetextatus’ ascent could have been interpreted as a protest against the imperial anti-pagan legislation. He had evidently had a leading role in ideological discussions as well as in the celebrations on the Capitol which could explain why Jerome condemned Praetextatus with such ferocity. D. Vera has even construed Praetextatus’ ascent to the Capitol as a triumph, a protest deliberately directed against Christian emperors.[28] Though I would not interpret Praetextatus’ conspicuous celebration as a conscious act against emperors, his ascent to the Capitol was essential from a topographical point of view since the Capitoline temple of Iuppiter Optimus Maximus was an ideal centre for nurturing old Roman religious traditions. Making a public appearance  in front of the Roman people in a grandiose senatorial manner, Praetextatus may have wanted to show that the Capitol with its temples was still alive as a cult centre instead of being merely a relic of the past.


Praetextatus’ protection of pagan buildings as city prefect and praetorian prefect become more comprehensible when perceived in the wider fourth-century context of the conquest of sacred space.[29] The new Christian church sites outside the city competed with old pagan areas of the centre for importance and visibility. Praetextatus tried to keep the pagan religious tradition visible in the cityscape of Rome by restoring and protecting pagan shrines. Cleaning up the Maeniana, the extra structures added to pagan temples, Praetextatus aimed at freeing the sacred buildings from the covering surrounding clutter and to make the sacred sites of the centre of Rome more visible.

Both the restoration of the Porticus deorum consentium and the ascent to the Capitol reflect the vital importance of space to pagans.[30] The imperial legislation saw paganism as a religion of place and thus the laws against paganism tried to discourage pagan adherents by destroying and profaning their shrines and holy places. In order to refute a pagan deity, Christians had to seize the place where this god reigned.[31] A certain cult place was not as crucial for Christianity[32] as for paganism which could not survive without cult sites in the struggle for its existence and this is why the location of temples and shrines was important for pagans in Rome at the end of the fourth century.


[1] CIL VI 102 = ILS 4003: [Deorum c]onsentium sacrosancta simulacra cum omni lo[ci totius adornatio]ne cultu in [formam antiquam restituto] / [V]ettius Praetextatus, v(ir) c(larissi­mus), pra[efectus u]rbi [reposuit] / curante Longeio [--- v(ir) c(larissimus, c]onsul[ari]. The Longeius mentioned here was probably either curator statuarum or operum publicorum under the city prefect.

[2] A good account of the archeological phases of the Porticus deorum consentium in Nieddu 37-52. The first excavations in the portico were made in 1833 and CIL VI 102 was found in 1834. Platner – Ashby 1929, 421-422; Lugli 1975, 222-223; Coarelli 19896, 61. Varro, rust. 1.1.4.

[3] Mart. Cap. 1.42. Cf. Rut. Nam. 1.18: concilium summi credimus esse dei.

[4] Numen multiplex in CIL VI 1779 (see ch. 2.5); Bloch 1945, 208; Bloch 1963, 209-210; Chastagnol 1962, 173; followed by Klein 47-50, Cracco Ruggini 1979a, 129 and Nieddu 50. Matthews 1975, 22 is more careful: ‘… its particular nuance surely represents the initiative, as it seems to reflect the philosophy, of the great pagan senator’.

[5] Sallustius,                  µ   6.2-5. Long 317, 322. The writer could be identified as Saturnius Secundus Salutius 3, PLRE I, 814-817 who is the most probable candidate, or with Sallustius 1, PLRE I, 796, or Flavius Sallustius 5, PLRE I, 397-398. For the identification of the writer, see Rochefort xiv-xxi; Browning 139-140.

[6] Macr. Sat. 1.12.5-8; zodiac signs, Macr. Sat. 1.12.10. Cf. Macr. Sat. 1.23.5-6; Mart. Cap. 1.45.

[7] Aug. civ. 2.3. Long 306-307, 243.

[8] Orfitus: CIL VI 45; Caesarius: Amm. 29.6.19. LaBranche 10, 48-49 believes that a considerable amount of pagan buildings were restored in the fourth and early fifth centuries because the Roman urban prefects very often were pagans.

[9] Chastagnol 1960, 168; Chastagnol 1994, 324.

[10] There is no evidence of Christian churches under the surveillance of the city prefect before Gratian’s reign. Chastagnol 1960, 140; Chastagnol 1994, 324.

[11] The only one major sacral building known to have been built in Rome after Constantine’s death is the Syrian sanctuary on the Ianiculum, probably during the reign of Julian (361-363). Krautheimer 35.

[12] CTh 16.10.19: temples in public use; CTh 16.10.3; 16.10.18: respect for the monuments of the past; CTh 16.10.8 stresses the aesthetic value of temples and images; cf. Prud. c. Symm. 1.502-505: liceat statuas consistere puras, artificum magnorum opera; CTh 16.10.15 protects the ornaments of temples as works of art; Liban. or. 30.43 reminds Emperor Theodosius that temples are imperial property. According to Wardman 1982, 141, in practice the Christians did less harm than is generally believed.

[13] CTh 15.1.19 (in 376); 15.1.27 (in 390).

[14] Hier. epist. 107.2; Prud. c. Symm. 1.561-565. Matthews 1975, 23 suggests that the destroyed Mithraeum could have been on some private property of the family of Gracchus but Chastagnol 1960, 157 (who believes that Gracchus did not act on his own initiative but followed imperial policy), Vera 1981, 153-154 and Clemente 1982, 62 disagree with him.

[15] CIL VI 1658, CIL VI 3864. Similar cases are recorded by CIL VI 1170 and CIL VI 1672.

[16] Aug. epist. 47.3; interpreting Deuteronomy 7.25 as a prohibition against the private use of pagan art, Augustine accepts the public use of pagan buildings and art and compares pagan buildings that had been recycled for Christian re-use, ‘to do honour to the true god’ to people who have been converted to Christianity.

[17] Amm. 27.9.10.

[18] For the history of the Maeniana, see Lehmann-Hartleben 280-296 and Ebert 245-247; Purcell 155; LaBranche 27-28, 186 nr.82. The word maeniana in Paul. Fest. p.134M = 120 Lindsay: Maeniana appellata sunt a Maenio censore, qui primus in foro ultra columnas tigna proiecit, quo ampliarentur superiora spectacula; Vitr. 5.11. Laws against any extra structures CTh 15.1.22 (in 383), 15.1.25 (in 389), 15.1.39 (in 398) and 15.1.47 (in 409). CIust 8.10.11 (in 423) decreed that the distance of ten feet between two buildings also applied to two maeniana.

[19] Symm. rel. 21.2-3. Barrow 113; Vera 1978, 81-82; Vera 1981, 25, 158-159.

[20] Cracco Ruggini 1974, 436; Cracco Ruggini 1979b, 117; Vera 1978, 81-82. Vera 1981, 159-160 on Symm. epist. 1.46.2 edictum principum, nisi iam notum est, idem tibi adsertor expediet … et iam statuas recepistis iisdem paene populi acclamationibus quibus amiseratis referring to the edict Praetextatus had obtained from the emperor. The emendation of Symm. epist. 1.46.2 et iam statuas explains the previous sentence edictum principum …, see Callu 109, 224; Bruggisser 1993, 364-365 n.34. Seeck 1883, lxxxviii-ix, 24 read the words as statuas etiam recepistis and interpreted them as a reference to statues erected to Praetextatus in his lifetime.

[21] Symm. rel. 21.1-6. Praetextatus is here called a vir excellens which indicates that he was still alive at the moment (if he had already been dead Symmachus would have called him e.g. clarissimae memoriae vir). Vera 1981, 154, 159-160; Seeck 1883, lvi, n.219. For Symmachus’ difficulties and his enemies, see Vera 1981, xxxiv-xxxix, 153-160.

[22]  Symm. rel. 21.1-3. Rel. 21 was written before Dec. 11, 384 because Damasus died on Dec. 11, 384 (Martyrol. Hier. IV Id. Dec.; Lib. pontif. 1.213.5 Duchesne) but in Symm. rel. 21 he is still alive. Terminus post quem of rel. 21 and the decree against the spoliation remains uncertain: Seeck 1883, lv-lvi, Bloch 1945, 216 and Chastagnol 1962, 224 suggested the summer of 384, after Symm. rel. 3 and the dispute over the altar of Victory while according to Vera 1981, 158 Symm. rel. 3.1 refers to the decree against the spoliation of temples and thus rel. 3 is later than the decree.  Vera 1981, 154-160 believes that Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan must have kept out of this intrigue because Ambrose’s ally Damasus took Symmachus’ part this time.

[23] Hier. epist. 107.1: Auratum squalet Capitolium, fuligine et aranearum telis omnia Romae templa cooperta sunt, movetur urbs sedibus suis et inundans populus ante delubra semiruta currit ad martyrum tumulos. Fraschetti 677-678 interprets Jerome’s strongly exaggerated invective as a certain mark of the continuing importance of the Capitol; thus, the inhabitants of Rome had not left the old city centre though new cult places had moved outside the walls. For the rapid construction of churches in the fourth century, see Pietri 1993, 706-709.

[24] Hier. epist. 23.2-3 (in 384).

[25] Vera 1983, 141-142 and Cracco Ruggini 1979b, 17 believe that Praetextatus’ ascent to the Capitol  and the gladiato­rial games described by Symm. rel. 47 were two phases of the same ceremony, a pagan triumph. See also ch. 4.1.

[26] Late mentions of triumphs: Symm. rel. 9.3; Paneg. 7.8.7. Juppiter still remained important for pagans in the fourth century: Aug. civ. 5.26; Carmen contra paganos v.2; v.122. Versnel 1-2, 68-71, 95; Fraschetti 1999, 51-52; MacCormack 1981, 34-39; MacCormack 1972, 728, 731.

[27] Zos. 2.29.5 on Constantine’s refusal to ascend to the Capitol at a public festival during his visit in Rome in 326; Liban. or. 19.19; 20.24. Constantine’s refusal dated to 326 by Curran 74 and Fuhrmann 1994, 62, to 325 by MacCormack 1972, 731, to 312 by Lippold 1983, 20, and to 315 by Paschoud 1971, 224-225. In the Historia Augusta (Heliog. 15.7) Heliogabalus is blamed for refusing to ascend to the Capitol.

[28] Vera 1983, 143.

[29] Salzman 1999, 123-134 on the conquest of space and time.

[30] Cf. Kahlos 1995, 46-47.

[31] E.g. CTh 16.10.19 (Nov. 15, 407). For Rome as sacred landscape, see Cancik 1985-1986, 250-265. Beard – North – Price 1998a, 167-168, Wardman 172 and Brown 1992, 19 of the locality of pagan cults. The prohibitions of sacrifice and the closing of shrines weakened the cultural identity and autonomy of the cities since it undermined local rites.

[32] By the end of the fourth century the Christians developed a sacred topography of their own. Markus 1990, 140-142.


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